On Monday night at the AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, Sam Smith wanted his audience to know that he's over the man who inspired "In the Lonely Hour," the baldly confessional debut album that made the 23-year-old British singer an unlikely pop star, multiple-award winner, tabloid object and owner of the most famous broken heart of 2014. "It's really weird for me to sing these songs," he said late in his nearly 90-minute, 16-song set, "because I'm completely over him." Introducing one of those songs, the austere, lachrymose "Not in That Way," Smith added, "Now, it's not my song. It's your song."
If the pain that informed "In the Lonely Hour" has receded into memory for Smith, and his uncontrollable smiling Monday night gave the audience no reason to believe otherwise, his brain has yet to alert his voice, a seemingly preternatural instrument with deep reserves of soul. That voice, a liquid falsetto Smith wields with masterful control, from one song to the next brought to mind early Smokey Robinson, "Off the Wall"-era Michael Jackson, avant-garde androgyne Antony Hegarty and even pre-Judd Apatow-punch line Michael McDonald.
At the outset of the concert, his voice was also the primary focus of concern, the performance falling less than three months after Smith was diagnosed with a vocal-cord hemorrhage that forced him to cancel shows in Australia and Asia and undergo surgery. That pain, it appears, is behind him, too. (Not so the sunburn that visibly raged across his face and neck, a result, the London-born Smith said, of spending a day off on Miami Beach.)
On a stage boasting a black-and-gray color scheme and little else, Smith, his five-piece band and three backup singers opened with "Life Support," an "In the Lonely Hour" track whose needful lyrics are offset by a slinky trip-hop arrangement and Smith's buoyant singing. They followed this with "Together," Smith's 2013 collaboration with the British dance duo Disclosure and Chic founder Nile Rodgers, its slow-jamming disco groove supporting the idea that Smith's brand of soul music, for all its modern flourishes and millennial self-awareness, is deeply indebted to the glitter-ball era that made shooting stars of Cameo and Kool and the Gang and established a place in the firmament for the Bee Gees and Hall and Oates.
At times, particularly during "Restart," a pulsing "In the Lonely Hour" outtake, Smith wore these influences like a comfortable, loose-fitting tracksuit, his confidence with the material radiating in all directions. At other times, he performed as if he'd been made to slip a hair shirt over that sunburned skin, as during a perplexing dash through Amy Winehouse's "Tears Dry on Their Own" and a mechanical, colorless attempt at Elvis Presley's "Can't Help Falling in Love." These missteps, rare though they were, brought the show perilously close to cruise-ship-wedding-band territory.
Mostly, though, Smith seemed more at ease onstage than should be expected of an upstart performer with so few songs to his name. More than once, he ceded the spotlight to his backup singers, who used the opportunity not to showboat, but to braid Ashford and Simpson's "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and Chic's "Le Freak" with the loose threads of the Winehouse cover, re-establishing their bandleader's fealty to both the distant and recent past, while he listened out of sight behind the stage. If it was a point they felt needed to be repeated, it was a point well made.
Whatever distance remained between Smith and fans of "In the Lonely Hour," the singer-songwriter did his best to close it Monday night. The houselights illuminated the audience for much of the show, creating a joyous counterpoint to Smith's sorrowful lyrics. Between songs, Smith was genial and chatty, sounding genuinely taken aback by the size of the 19,600-capacity arena ("I can't believe how f------ big this room is") and grateful for the applause he received while addressing the recent surgery. But a propensity for oversharing caught up with him more than once, and his elucidations regarding the personal importance of songs such as "Make It to Me" and "I've Told You Now" came off rehearsed and redundant. Sometimes, it's the opposite of rude to wish a performer would shut up and sing.
The show concluded, as it should have, with "Stay With Me," the inescapable, choir-ready hit that earned Smith a pair of Grammy Awards, royalties for Tom Petty (whose settlement with Smith regarding the song's similarity to "I Won't Back Down" is well-documented) and a spot on prom-night playlists from now until the end of days. While the band continued to play, Smith exited the stage for the final time, leaving the song's lyrics, about a one-night stand the singer doesn't want to end, hanging in the air. If this song, too, no longer belongs to Smith, last night's concert yielded no shortage of people willing to claim it as their own.